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AGNES DENES Living Pyramid


The monumental Living Pyramid rises from the lawn of Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City like a futuristic mirage, with a base thirty feet on a side. It marks a return to New York public art for this eighty-three-year-old artist. Grasses and flowering annuals grow like a hanging garden on the step-pyramid’s terraces, misted by a revolving sprinkler head at the apex. The pyramid’s neighbor is an outdoor dance stage, and both are framed by the housing projects that surround Socrates Sculpture Park. Denes’s utopian fantasy—a mathematical, and philosophical ideal form—rubs shoulders with break-dancers, children playing Frisbee, and an assortment of dog walkers. I think Denes thrives on this juxtaposition, as she says: “When the Pyramid Awakens and becomes organic form, they unglue their units (built by the Masterbuilders [us] and thus freed from inaction and rigid form they come alive and become somewhat inaccurate, as anything that is somewhat alive must be.”

Agnes Denes, The Living Pyramid, 2015. Socrates Sculpture Garden, Long Island City, New York. Courtesy Socrates Sculpture Park.

The Living Pyramid is the artist’s first New York-based land art since her Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982). Many have seen the photograph of Denes walking through her wheat field with flowing tresses and staff, like a modern-day Demeter, the goddess of the sheaf. In an era of gouging bulldozer earth works, like Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1970), there was something wonderfully feminine about her hand-planted urban wheat field that promoted agricultural renewal in the shadows of Wall Street’s glass towers. Her Public Art Fund budget of $10,000 allowed for only two acres, a far cry from the big bucks the boys got. Women scrambled for any funding in that period, and Denes made sandwiches at night for her volunteer planters. She harvested 1,000 pounds of grain from the project and sent it to cities to highlight world hunger.

 This summer also marked another anniversary. Denes recreated Wheatfield on twelve acres in Milan’s Porta Nova district as part of an urban renewal program. The Fondazione Riccardo Catella, Fondazione Nicola Trussardi and Confagricoltura sponsored the project, which promotes values like sharing food and protecting land. In ancient Rome, the priestesses of Vesta controlled granaries and dispensed grain. It is nice to see Italy adopting a contemporary-art version of this practice, this time with a more senior goddess.  

Agnes Denes has used pyramids for decades as a module into which she plugs philosophical, mathematical, and visionary constructs. If Agnes Denes has an antecessor, it would be Buckminster Fuller with his triangular obsession and utopian fantasy projects like the “Tetrahedron City” (1968). Furthermore, Fuller’s icosahedron-based maps (1944–46) are a predecessor to Denes’s Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space Map Projections (1977). Both Fuller and Denes have produced drawings of remarkable transparent structures that exist as blueprints for complex problem solving, futuristic visions, and models for “a new world.” Two examples are provided by the artist’s pyramidal Self-Supporting City Dwellings (that can sustain their inhabitants), a 1989 proposal for a shell-shaped “Peace Park,” and “Space Stations”(1994). Both are companions to Fuller’s “Space Ship Earth” and“Dome over Manhattan” (1960). Denes is Fuller’s ideological daughter, bringing mathematics and utopian thought into art possessing great elegance and beauty.

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield–A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan, with Agnes Denes Standing in the Field, 1982. Courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York. Photo: John McGrail.

The Living Pyramid is an extension of her recent exhibition, In the Realm of Pyramids, at Leslie Tonkonow Gallery, and a book the artist is currently writing, The Book of Pyramids. The 2015 exhibition contained many exquisite drawings and prints of pyramidal structures. Her early drawings like 4000 B.C. (1972) chart the pyramid as mortuary structure, much like Antonio Canova’s Monument to Titian or the Étienne-Louis Boullée cemetery project (1785). However, Denes quickly left the realm of the dead, and her pyramid drawings took poetic flight in the Bird Pyramid (1984). Pascal’s Perfect Probability Pyramid & the People Paradox—The Predicament (1980) is the anthropomorphic version composed of thousands of marching stick figures. Sculptural examples include Pyramids of Conscience (2005), which are Plexiglass pyramids scaled up to the size of an average adult, filled with polluted water, or oil, or tap water.

Denes’s Tree Mountain in Ylojarvi, Finland (1992), and Forest for Australia (1998) moved the pyramid into a living structure. Tree Mountain, a forest of 10,000 trees, was planted in a pattern derived from “a golden section” and her sunflower/pineapple system design. The trees were planted on a conical shape built to the artist’s specifications. Forest for Australia consisted of 11,000 trees planted into five spirals resembling step pyramids.

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield, 2015. Porta Nuova district, Milan.

Both the Australian and Finnish forests are planted on landfills, and are meant to reclaim the sites. For this reviewer they fall into the category of land art more than eco-art because Denes’s choice of trees was more aesthetic and symbolic than ecologically oriented.

Klaus Ottmann compares Denes to Joseph Beuys, the “social sculptor,” but the two artists have a very different relationship to nature. Beuys, a student of Rudolph Steiner’s work on bees, based his concept of “warmth” on the energetic system the bees created in the hive. “Warmth” (Venus energy) in the form of honey was then pumped into a conference hall at the 1977 Documenta. Man was to learn how to behave from the bees. Denes bends nature to her will—trees are chained and planted on grids determined by Denes. The problems of mono-agriculture, which she has been accused of because her Finnish forest was comprised of one type of tree, have long been known. The creatures inhabiting her forests aren’t allowed the kind of complex habitat that would be more to their liking. We now know that trees communicate through their root systems, educating their neighbors. Nature has no voice in Denes’s work.

Agnes Denes, The Living Pyramid, 2015. Socrates Sculpture Garden, Long Island City, New York. Courtesy Socrates Sculpture Park.

Eco-art is evolving, with many artists trying to work within existing natural systems.  Mel Chin’s Revival Field (1993), also a landfill,uses special hyper-accumulator plants to extract heavy metals from contaminated soil. Denes’s pyramids were built using “mined land material” and the pollution issue remains unclear. We hope the trees will aid this reclamation, and prevent erosion when they become rooted. Denes had consulted a horticulturalist for the Living Pyramid, and had submitted a long list of grasses that turned out to be more suitable for prairies. Common grasses and annuals were substituted due to the growing season and length of the installation. As with Denes’s forests, the plants used for the Living Pyramid are more symbolic than ecologically sustainable. Denes says that, “while the pyramids are based on mathematics and thus achieve a kind of perfection, they contain all the imperfections they are dealing with or are representing and visualizing.”

Denes is heroic, having survived a sexist art world with sheer grit and intelligence. She has produced a remarkable body of work and thought. The Living Pyramid holds its own whatever its eco-imperfections, and exists as a flowering monument to Denes and her complex explorations. It’s a symbol of her creative fecundity and life force. Denes is on my shortlist of women who should be having retrospectives at MoMA. It is wonderful to see the Living Pyramid blooming in the hood.


Ann McCoy

Ann McCoy is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019, for painting and sculpture.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2015

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